“The Souvenir” reveals itself slowly, calmly, with great deliberation.
It reveals itself in desultory conversations among British 20-somethings in short scenes that seem at first to be going nowhere in particular. Then, gradually, they coalesce around a young woman named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film buff and, later, a film-school student fired by the desire to make her first picture. A feature, she declares, not a documentary.
“I’m creating something new with this,” she says, but is unsure what her subject will be or how to approach it.
She’s untried, she’s starting out — she’s about to turn 25 — with film, with life, with, quite soon, love.
From a rich family, she slowly, ever so slowly, falls under the spell of a seemingly well-to-do young fellow named Anthony (Tom Burke). With his pinstripe suits and upper-class mannerisms, he’s a bit of a mystery. Says he works for the Foreign Office, but doesn’t specify what it is he does. There are intimations it has something to do with counterterrorism. Bombs are going off sporadically in London in attacks linked to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (It’s set in the 1980s.)
That’s in the background. In the foreground is how Anthony treats Julie. He denigrates her. In conversational tones he remarks on her “fragility.”
“You’re lost and you’ll always be lost,” he says.
She believes herself to be a normal person, and sincere. “I’m not sure sincerity is enough,” he says with an air of superiority. Insidiously, he undercuts her. Despite that, or maybe at some level because of it, she falls in love.
She acknowledges being in “a really difficult relationship.” She’s not blind to his flaws, which over time become increasingly apparent.
Love in “The Souvenir” is strange. Love is forgiving. Love flies in the face of all reason. Love leads to bad decisions. Love, ultimately, is irrational, inexplicable. Tragic, too.
Love is something one learns from, about one’s lover, about, above all, oneself. Those lessons eventually seep into the film Julie is trying to make.
The picture is biographical. Writer-director Joanna Hogg shaped it from her own experiences while attending film school in London in the 1980s. (A sequel, “The Souvenir: Part II,” is also to be released.) Her casting of Swinton Byrne, the daughter of her longtime friend Tilda Swinton (who plays Julie’s mother in the picture), as the movie version of herself was a master stroke.
The young woman is luminous in the role. Her performance is a wonder of restraint. Whether projecting sincerity, confusion or, later on, assertiveness, we see the character gradually developing.
Burke is fine in the role of Anthony. He’s intriguing as he exposes a vulnerability that lies submerged beneath Anthony’s supercilious hauteur.
Hogg’s use of Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him” on the soundtrack trenchantly sums up Julie’s romantic conundrum: “If my eyes don’t deceive me, there’s something going wrong around here.”
Love. Strange indeed.
★★★ “The Souvenir,” with Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton. Written and directed by Joanna Hogg. 119 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and language. Opens May 31 at multiple theaters.